Teen Dating Violence
A Teenage Epidemic: My Story
By Rachel, age 25, Connecticut
Dating at any age is a challenge. However, I find that with the tween and teen population dating is that much more tricky. The first question to look at is, "how is dating defined in the high school world?" Do we see dating differently as adults?
After speaking with four high school students - one freshman, one sophomore, one junior, and one senior - the conclusion I have drawn is that in high school dating simply means hanging out with the guy you are seeing. Dating means going to movies or concerts, talking on the phone, or grabbing a bite to eat. For the most part, those in their high school years are well aware that the boyfriend/girlfriend they are with is not their soul mate. However, some tweens and teens do feel that the relationship they are in is serious.
The largest issue facing high school age young adults, no matter how they define dating, is in fact teen dating violence. According to the website Love Is Not Abuse, 1 in 3 teens who have been in relationships has experienced the most serious forms of dating violence and abuse, including sexual abuse, physical abuse, or threats of physical harm to a partner or themselves. This is a frightening trend that not many teens in today's society are educated on.
Many school curriculums do not cover teen dating violence, even in health classes. I myself had never learned about teen dating violence, and sadly I became part of the "1 in 3" statistic. In fact, I was trapped in a such a relationship for two years. Getting out of the relationship was very difficult for me, as it is for many teens who find themselves in a teen dating violence relationship. I remained friends with my ex-boyfriend who continued for three more years to control me. I was very fortunate that, with help, I was able to get out of the relationship completely upon transferring colleges in 2005 and meeting the woman who is my current mentor.
My teen dating violence relationship began when I was 15 years old, in the fall of 2000. My best guy friend, whom I'll call Tom (not his real name), was someone I had grown up with since birth. We hung out with his fraternal twin sister, whom I'll call Em, as well as a group of mutual friends. The two of us hung out as friends on a regular basis, just the two of us.
By the time we were sophomores in high school a number of our peers as well as our teachers felt that we would end up at some point tying the knot and settling down. We were such close friends that the next logical step for us seemed to be to become a couple. In late September of 2000 in the hallway at school Tom turned to me and asked me, "Do you want to go out?" I thought about it for a minute and replied, "Sure, why not?" We became a couple on Thursday, September 21st, 2000.
For the first few months we were perpetually in what is typically referred to as "the honeymoon period." We went out almost every weekend. We played miniature golf, went to movies, to the mall, out to eat, and so on. We were your typical high school couple. Tom also would show up to school routinely with stuffed animals, chocolates, or flowers for me. He brought me soup when I was sick. Tom was the best boyfriend a girl could ask for. That didn't last long.
I started to notice whenever we went to play miniature golf that he would become very competitive. When he would beat me at miniature golf he would put me down and tell me that he would always be a lot better than I was at the game, that winning was just not something that I would ever be capable of against him or anyone else. When I would miss putts during miniature golf he would become angry with me and ask me if I was stupid or blind or both. In the beginning I would brush off the comments and shake my head, but I never bothered to try to defend myself. I learned later that this was a smart choice.
As the months went on and we entered our junior year of high school the verbal abuse slowly began to increase. The verbal abuse centered around the fact that we were starting the college application process. He began putting me down, telling me how he was going off to college while I would be working at a minimum wage job, that I would never go to college, that I wasn't smart enough for a college environment, and that my future was working at a place like McDonald's.
When report cards came out he would demand to see my report card and would compare our grades. His grades were always higher than mine, for two reasons - the first being that I have a learning disability which is a nonverbal processing disorder, and the second being that from the very beginning of high school straight through to the end of our senior year I was experiencing other trauma in my life, all of which occurred by individuals outside of my family and home life that had either done or were still doing a large amount of damage to my confidence and self-esteem. At the time that I was in high school I was barely managing to keep my head above water, so to speak. My personal life was collapsing around me and I felt trapped. My schoolwork and grades were not on my list of priorities; simply surviving was. I was a B and C student for the most part with an occasional A or even D thrown in.
Tom would frequently laugh at my poor grades; he started to consistently refer to me as Stupid. As soon as he would insult me he would always then turn around and tell me that he was "just kidding". The other individuals in my life who had perpetrated the prior trauma had used my stupidity as their motive to cause me harm, so by the time Tom began calling me stupid, the end of our junior year, I believed him. My teachers at that point were also telling me that as a result of my learning disability that I was not as smart as my peers and would never be as successful, which was their way of nicely saying that I was stupid, so the more Tom said it the more deeply ingrained that belief became in me.
The summer between junior and senior year of high school Tom's abusive behavior escalated. When I would make plans with other friends he would want to know who I was hanging out with, when I was leaving my house, and exactly what time I would returning. He wanted to know if there would be other guys around, and the location of where I was going. He began repeatedly calling my home from almost the time that I left until I returned home and would quiz me on where I had been. He accused me of lying to him as well.
By the end of the summer it had become obvious that somewhere along the way he had developed a nasty temper and also had a short fuse, and I spent the rest of our relationship walking on eggshells. By the beginning of senior year the verbal and emotional abuse would begin at the start of the school day and would last the whole day, telling me that he didn't like what I was wearing and that I looked ugly. He began to make statements to me citing the fact that he had gone out with some of our mutual male friends the night before and that he had met several attractive young ladies around our age who had given him their phone numbers, but he had thrown them away, since he was *SIGH* with me. He told me that I should be grateful he would even look at me, let alone date me, given how ugly I was. Due to the previous trauma I had experienced and the fact that I had spent the last four years binge eating and over eating (so as not to be attractive any longer), I hated my body and the way I looked. It was a nasty cycle. My self-esteem by my senior year was in the toilet. I really did not have any, so I was grateful that he would look at me and date me. I did not feel I deserved his attention. The verbal abuse would continue through to the end of the day, and sometimes beyond.
Tom was especially skilled at guilt tripping me, especially when it came to the fact that I had no interest in being physical with him - this included even kissing. The most that I would allow and felt comfortable doing was to hold hands with him or for him to put an arm around me. My lack of interest in being physical with him was due to the prior trauma I had sustained (although he had no knowledge of the prior trauma), but he resented me for it. He would constantly tell me how he could have any girl he wanted but he chose me and loved me, and he wanted to show me in a physical way that he loved me. He told me that I must not really care about or love him since I wouldn't consent. He would tell me how hurt he was that I didn't want to even kiss him or do anything else, and that any other girl in my position would do more than kiss him. He told me regularly how frustrated he was. I felt like I was in fact a horrible girlfriend for not acquiescing to him and decided that I deserved his anger and frustration because I wouldn't do what any other girl would do.
During our senior year I kept my after school and weekend schedule pretty full. I was working as a nanny for a family in town. I worked from 2:30 in the afternoon until around 7:00 at night, Monday through Friday. I was also taking dance classes Monday and Wednesday nights and I started dancing competitively. Dance became my outlet. I also taught Sunday school on Saturday mornings and would hang out with other friends. Tom hated the fact that I occupied my time with anything or anyone other than him or anything he did not approve, and he would frequently yell at me as a result. He would call my nannying job some 10 to 15 times in an afternoon demanding that I talk to him, and would become irate when I refused. He would tell me I couldn't go to my dance classes, and when I did and he called my home only to be told that I was not home he would become furious. The next day at school I would hear about it all day long.
On two occasions during senior year the abuse turned physical. The first incident was when he and a mutual friend of ours were playing catch with a tennis ball in the hallway of our school. He was standing less than 20 feet away from me. He told me to "think fast" and threw the tennis ball at my face at point blank range and as hard as he could, striking the left side of my face resulting in a bruise. This incident was witnessed by a teacher who attempted to intervene, but I refused to allow this teacher to take Tom to the principal to be punished, fearing the verbal assault I would receive from him if I allowed this. I laughed it off and told the teacher that it had been meant as a joke, that he hadn't meant to actually throw the tennis ball, and that it was an accident. This teacher did not pursue the matter.
The second incident occurred a few weeks later. Tom had gotten angry with me for disagreeing with a comment he had made about one of our teachers that I felt was unfair. He told me that he had not asked for my opinion and that I didn't know what I was talking about, that I was stupid, and then "jokingly" punched me very hard in my shoulder, which also resulted in a bruise.
With Tom, all of the verbal, emotional, and physical abuse heaped on me was always because of something I had done, but his main excuse was simply that I should not have made him angry. If I would stop making him angry he would not have to treat me the way that he did.
His abusive behavior was not a secret. He would verbally and emotionally abuse me in front of our friends, peers, and teachers. He liked to humiliate me and shame me, and the bigger the crowd to witness it the better. The only people that he never verbally and emotionally abused me in front of were my family members because he refused to spend time with them and became angry when I would not give in to his requests for me to spend time with him instead of my family.
I knew that I was in way over my head and I knew that Tom's temper was becoming more explosive by the day, but I did not end the relationship for two reasons. First, sadly, I used being in the abusive relationship as a way to harm myself. In my mind, I could justify every put down, insult, and hurtful word or action as justification that he was only treating me the way I obviously was meant to be treated, as prior experiences and the abusive relationship all proved. I deserved to be abused. I was "stupid" enough to get myself into the situations when I knew better, and the abuse was simply the consequence. I saw the abuse as my fault - I should have been smarter.
I was fortunate enough to have another teacher in high school named Lisa who sat me down every day and told me how valuable and worthy I was as a human being, and how I was a beautiful person and deserved to be treated with respect and dignity. At the time, sadly, I was simply not able to take those words to heart, but they stayed in the back of my mind, and each day would remind me that someone (outside of my family) cared. Lisa's words pulled me through many dark days and gave me the strength to go to school every day through graduation, and to give the impression that I had it all and that life was great.
Also, in the two incidents of physical abuse, he was doing to me what I wanted to do to myself but was simply too chicken to do. I was able to hurt myself by using him. The second reason was because of fear. Tom's temper had become explosive to the point where I did not know what would happen if I tried to break off the relationship.
I ended the relationship on Monday, October 20th, 2002, after Tom showed up to my nannying job and became irrate and began screaming at me because I had chosen to attend my grandfather's funeral the previous Friday instead of coming to cheer him on at his school sports match. He told the two charges in my care that he "wished they were dead" so that I would spend more time with him. That same afternoon, also in front of my charges, he told me that there were times that he wished he had never asked me out, and wished that I didn't exist so that he could stop hurting because of me. I decided in that moment to end to end things with him.
I told him I was no longer going to date him and I told him to go home. The next day, Tuesday the 21st, I made it clear to him in school that our relationship was over. He tried to guilt me and told me that he was so upset that he wanted to hurt himself. It took a lot of courage for me to put on my headphones, turn on my iPod, and ignore him. A few hours later peers informed me that Tom was telling them that he had broken up with me because he realized how much better he could do than me. The only thing that mattered to me was that I was free, but I wouldn't be free for long.
We stayed apart through high school graduation, but during our freshman year of college he started wanting to hang out and be friends again. I agreed to simply be friends because back before we dated when we were simply friends he had been wonderful. I learned quickly that my decision to become his friend was a bad one. By then, I had transferred colleges to a small Catholic college outside of Worcester, Massachusetts. He made obvious attempts right from the start to try to control me and he still called me multiple times each day and would scream at me once he reached me, wanting to know why I had not been available previously. October of 2005 changed everything.
On October 10th, 2005, I was in a meeting with my mentor and guardian angel Patty when Tom called wanting to talk with me. I politely informed him that I was in a meeting and unable to chat with him. Patty was about 10 to 15 feet away from me, and was able to hear Tom clear across the room through my cell phone screaming at me and cursing at me. As Patty later told me, she was horrified that I'd simply sat and listened calmly to his tirade. Patty got up out of the chair she had been sitting in, walked up to me, took the cell phone out of my hand, and hung up on Tom. She told me that I was never, ever to have any communication with him again, and asked me if I understood. I expressed fear over what the consequences of not contacting him would be. She simply told me that he was in another state from where we were and that there was nothing he could do, and that on my return home over school breaks and vacation that she doubted he would attempt to have any type of contact with me.
Having known Tom my entire life, deep down I felt that he would not pursue me or our "friendship". At that moment I realized that I was free of my teen dating violence relationship. When Patty asked me why I had put up with Tom's treatment, I told her simply that "I was used to it." That statement troubled her, that someone as young as I was could be "used to being treated badly." I explained that, as a result of prior traumas, the way my then-abusive ex-boyfriend had treated me was not something I was unfamiliar with. She began working with me concerning the trauma and abuse I had experienced prior to Tom. That previous experience had caused me to feel that being treated as abusively as he had treated me was not a big deal, and even ok.
Today, almost 6 years after cutting off contact with Tom, and after working through all of the prior abuse, I am now healthy psychologically, emotionally, and physically. I am in the best place that I have ever been in my life. I ended up switching my major in college from education to social work. I graduated in May 2009 with a Bachelor's degree in social work, and I am currently working on my Master's degree in youth ministry to be able to continue to work with teens. No matter where life takes me from here, one thing I know for sure is that I will never again accept being treated with anything less than the full respect, dignity, and worth that I deserve.
Teenagers need to be told every day by adults who love them and care about them that they are loved and that their worth is priceless. My parents told me these things all the time, but I didn't listen (because, after all, they were my parents). I know I am not the only teen who did not listen to her parents. I don't know today how many teens have a strong enough relationship with their parents where they are really listening to what their parents are saying and can talk to them. What I do know is that more adults (including teachers, coaches, youth ministers, and extended family) need to be supporting the teens in their lives. Teens need adults in their lives, knowing they truly hear them and understand the issues they are facing.
Young teenage girls especially need to be taught self-esteem and self confidence and shown that they do not need to put up with being treated disrespectfully by every adult in their lives. It is our responsibility as adults to mentor the younger generation of girls and to educate young men on the fact that they can still be masculine, but they do not need to prove their masculinity by abusing their girlfriends. We need to educate young men on how to treat young women. No one, male or female, deserves to be abused. With teenagers especially this point is critical.
For more information on teenage dating violence visit: www.loveisnotabuse.com